Most Americans learned in elementary school that the first Thanksgiving meal was actually a harvest feast with which the Pilgrims celebrated growing their first successful New World crops: corn, squash, and beans. What they didn't tell us was that the first European settlers preferred to dine on salt meat and wormy bread brought over by ship than eat the unfamiliar foods enjoyed by Native Americans. The colonists only opened their minds — and their mouths — once they were starving, according to "Eating in America," a delightful history of U.S. food culture by Waverly Root and Richard De Rochemont that I'm in the middle of reading.
America's wild turkeys were the exception, say Root and Rochemont, an instant gustatory hit. They tell how the Spanish conquistadores nicknamed the fowl "the cock of the Jesuits," for the globe-trotting religious order who quickly adopted them for dinner, while the French, German and Dutch chose variants on "bird of India," for where they thought Columbus had reached. The English, lazily seeing all "Oriental" names as interchangeable, opted for the one we use now: turkey.
(Photo is of a wild turkey that flew down from the Berkeley Hills and wandered around my office's parking lot the day before Thanksgiving last year, when I was preparing to cook my first bird as an ex-vegetarian. I was not deterred.)
Of course, today's turkeys bear almost no resemblance to those wild ones: since the 1960s, 99% of the ones sold for Thanksgiving are Large-Breasted Whites, which have been bred to grow very rapidly (reaching maturity in just two months), with gigantic breasts that give them joint problems (or would if they lived long enough) and make them unable to mate naturally. They are typically raised in crowded conditions, requiring regular doses of antibiotics, and fed a diet high in fat. And yet their meat is bland and dry, which is why Tyson and other producers will inject a so-called self-basting mixture of water, salt, and butter into the meat.
Thankfully, more options than ever abound for turkey. You can order free range and/or organic birds through most supermarkets, and heritage birds through specialty stores, local farms, and Heritage Foods USA (but they're sold out unless you want the 22-25 pound bird, and of course while these are S,O, and E, they most definitely ain't L, for local, coming by FedEx).
Let's look at what these and other common labels mean, listed in ascending order of per-pound price:
Natural: The USDA defines “natural” meat as free from artificial flavoring, colors, chemical preservatives, or synthetic ingredients, but the claim does not have to be verified, so it's meaningless except for indicating whether a turkey has been injected with salt water and fat. Price seems to be around $1.75/pound, just above conventional.
Hormone-free: Meaningless. U.S. law forbids the use of hormones or steroids in poultry (and pork).
Free range: The USDA requires only that free-range poultry producers provide outdoor access for an undetermined period each day. While some free-range turkeys may indeed be raised outdoors, in pasture, others may be raised in large poultry sheds with doors that are opened for five minutes a day; even if none of the animals ventured outside, they can still be legally labeled "free range." Look for "pastured" if this is important to you. Free-range turkeys in Bay Area supermarkets sell for $1.75-$2.10/lb.
Organic: Animals that have been fed 100 percent organic feed (grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizer, never given antibiotics (animals that get sick are removed from the organic livestock program), and given access to the outdoors. The USDA states that "They may be temporarily confined only for reasons of health, safety, the animal's stage of production, or to protect soil or water quality." The most meaningful label, as claims are third-party certified, but I'd take a bird from a small, local family farm over an organic one any day. Organic turkeys in Bay Area supermarkets sell for $2.50-$2.75/lb.
Heritage: A general name that refers to a family of eight historic American turkey sub-breeds, including the Standard Bronze and Bourbon Red, that are naturally mating, have a long lifespan, and have a slow-to-moderate rate of growth — all traits in stark contrast to the Broad-Breasted White. Funnily enough, according to Slow Food USA, "heritage" birds aren't what the Native Americans were eating, either: the domesticated varieties we know today originated in Europe, after collectors brought back wild turkeys from America in the 16th century to breed and select for their meat- and egg-producing capabilities in Britain, Holland, France, and Germany. Heritage turkeys cost
anywhere from $3.69 (at Whole Foods, believe it or not) to (these turned out to be heirloom, and there's a difference) over $4 at Berkeley Bowl, and $6 and up from farms.
On the hunt
So where do you get these alternative turkeys? Ideally, from a local farm. Unfortunately, with Thanksgiving just over a week away, Bay Area procrastinators are pretty much out of luck. The huge demand around here means your current chances of getting your hands on a pastured, organic, heritage turkey are less than getting your kid into a good public preschool program. Turkeys from Clark Summit or Highland Hills have been spoken for months in advance.
However, Bay Area supermarkets can get you a fresh, not frozen free-range (FR), organic (O), and/or heritage (H) bird. I canvassed several in Berkeley in person on Monday, and here's what I found:
Berkeley Bowl: Offering Willie Bird (FR, O) turkeys, Mary's (FR, O, H), and Diestel (FR, O
, H), all from California. Order by Friday, Nov. 17. Heritage turkeys are first-come, first-served starting tomrorow morning. The guy at the meat counter told me that they sold out in half an hour last year, so get there when they open at 10 a.m. if you want one.
Whole Foods: In the East Bay at least, offering only birds from Diestel Turkey Ranch in Sonora, CA, including free-range, organic (under its Heidi's label), and
heritage heirloom. Surprisingly, Whole Foods has some of the best prices around on all of the above varieties. Orders must be placed by this Saturday, Nov. 19, but can be picked up as late as Thanksgiving Day. Whole Foods also has entire precooked Thanksgiving dinners, complete with a roasted Diestel turkey, but we know none of you out there would opt for this route.
Andronico's: Willie Bird (FR, O), Zacky (FR); also offers Branigan turkeys, which are not certified organic but their website claims are raised free range and on organic feed. Although the Andronico's on Shattuck in the Gourmet Ghetto is sold out of organic and heirloom, the one on Telegraph still has them, and probably ones elsewhere. Deadline for ordering: Nov. 21.
Safeway: Chasing the Whole Foods consumer, Safeway is selling organic turkeys under its own O label. While supplies last.
And as for the all-important Thanksgiving side dishes, many of the ingredients for the original feast — like winter squash, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and beans — are in season right now and can be bought at local farmers markets, along with apples and Brussels sprouts. I haven't seen fresh cranberries, alas, but Whole Foods and the Bowl both have nonlocal organic varieties available. (Both stores also have lots of squash and sweet potatoes from local farms for sale.)
Me, well, I'll be dining with Omniwhore at the Potato Non Grata's sister's in Strawberry, Arizona, where we'll be gratefully eating whatever she's managed to cook for 25 people. But next year, I'm having a locavorean, 100-mile Thanksgiving for sure!